The Best & The Bitterest? From Bartender's Handshake to Bar Staple

Images courtesy of Fernet-Branca.

The latest family member to represent Fernet-Branco in its 170-plus-year history shows why it has remained relevant.

 

Once upon a time, until the early 1980s, there was a working Fernet-Branca distillery in Manhattan. Post 9/11, an effort to re-fire the long-silent still ended, and now an event space occupies the location. Keep trying, American bartenders­ – perhaps one day the Branca family will return and make their special elixir here again.

Meanwhile, few bars, at least those that need to maintain their cocktail bonafides, can today do without a bottle of Fernet-Branca. The “bartender’s handshake,” as it has been called, has probably never done exceedingly well in this country, though its popularity here is mostly limited to said cocktail havens (where industry folk tend to trade shots of this bitter black concoction) and Italian restaurants. There are places, San Francisco comes to mind, where the dark, bitterest of amari is an essential part of the drink landscape, a city where numerous joints serve the amaro on tap.

Which is one reason why Edoardo Branca, the latest of his clan tasked with representing the company internationally, was in the US recently, to promote the brand as well as to hawk an illustrated book of the company and brand’s history, Branca: A Spirited Italian Icon.

Created in 1845 as a potential cholera curative, Fernet-Branca has always been the source of much debate. Was it named after a Swedish chemist called Dr. Fernet? Does the name come from Milanese slang for “clean iron” (having something to do with the cooking of the aloe that is part of the herbal mixture)? Either way, its co-creator, Bernardino Branca, got his concoction to a priest in charge of a local hospital who swore that the Branca liquid was a cure for stomachaches and nervous disorders, as well as cholera. The rest, as they say, is history.

While Doctor Fernet, the mysterious Swede, is almost certainly apocryphal, the word “fernet” stuck as a generic term for the strong Milanese bitters, with other Italian fernets found usually only in Italian-American food and drink stores. Now, several brands made in the US today include “fernet” in their branding.

What’s in the Branca brand is still a secret, of course, though rhubarb, aloe, chinchona, laurel, bitter orange, myrrh, white turmeric, gentiane, mint, chamomile and saffron are among the 27 herbs, flowers, roots and plants used to create the flavor profile. That is, before the liquid is stored in Slovenian oak barrels for at least one year, a process said to deepen aroma and provide more color.

Today, the company has many products widely used in cocktail bars here in the US. Carpano Antica (vermouth producer Carpano was bought out in the 1980s) has become a significant cocktail geek brand, and there are other Carpano-branded vermouths: the bitter vermouth Punt e Mes and also Branca Menta, the mint flavored version of fernet that company lore credits to a request by 1950s and ‘60s opera sensation Maria Callas.

An interesting aspect of Edoardo Branca’s New York visit (the book tour stopped in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Chicago as well) was a tasting of some older Fernet-Branca’s, one from the 1970s and one from the 1980s. While Branca assured the tasters that the brand hasn’t changed in production methods or ingredients in any way over the course of time, aging in the bottle had changed these versions. The 1970s bottling tasted like oyster sauce and Bovril, with mint and licorice the next most prominent flavors. The 1980s version showed more coffee and licorice notes at the beginning, with the bitter rhubarb and floral chamomile more obvious than either of the other examples.

Aged vertical tastings are great fun for professionals, but the most interesting phenomenon has been the gradual acceptance by a significant portion of the American drinking public for stronger and more bitter flavors. It has long been said American drinkers ask for dry but prefer sweet, and while of course there is plenty of sweetness in Fernet-Branca and other amari, it’s the bitter that makes the (growing) impact on our palates. Maybe one day, American drinkers will rival Argentines, who drink so much fernet (mainly with cola) that the only other existing Branca distillery works overtime there, and that third distillery will re-open.